For 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter, the universal Church observes the season of Lent. During this season, we remember Jesus’ 40 days of prayer, fasting, and temptation in the desert before beginning his earthly ministry, and are ourselves reminded of our humanity and our need for God’s grace in our lives.
Throughout history, Christians have used the season of Lent as a time of fasting. Throughout scripture, the discipline of fasting has been used in a variety of ways: for discernment, for repentance, as a sign of grief, and as an expression of devotion to and dependence on God.
What is fasting?
At its most basic level, fasting is the discipline of giving something up in order to deepen our relationship with God.
The purpose of fasting, then, is twofold. First, fasting is a reminder of our utter dependence on God. When we fast, we are reminded of Jesus’ words that “People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God” (Matthew 4:4 CEB). In fasting, we are reminded that it us ultimately God, not what we eat, drink, or do, that is the source of life.
Secondly, fasting is a process of self-examination wherein we examine our lives to identify the things other than God that control us. Oftentimes, we have to give something up in order to recognize just how fully it controls and directs our lives – give up social media, for instance, and you’ll quickly realize how often you pick up your phone to idly scroll through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. A major goal of fasting, then, is to identify these things and remove them from our lives as a reminder of how ultimately insignificant they are.
Types of Fasts
Most instances of fasting found in scripture are dietary fasts, where we fast by making some type of change to our diet. Often, dietary fasts are most effective when the time that would otherwise be used preparing and eating a meal is instead devoted to prayer and the study of scripture.
There are three main types of dietary fasts:
- Total Fast: A total fast is the most intense form of fasting, and involves abstaining from all food and drink for a period of time. Historically, total fasts have only been used in extreme circumstances where there is a dire need for God’s presence and intervention in a situation.
- Water-Only Fast: Water-only fasts are just that: abstaining from all food and drink other than water for a period of time.
- Partial Fast: Partial fasts cover a wide range of practices, and involve the removal of a particular food (or type of food) from one’s diet for a period of time. What will be most effective will vary between individuals, but some of the most common popular options include alcohol, meat, caffeine, sweet/sugary foods, soda, and fast food.
The Wesley Fast
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, famously had a weekly fasting discipline where he would engage in a water-only fast from sundown Thursday through midafternoon Friday (and, for a period, sundown Tuesday through midafternoon Wednesday), even going so far at one point as to require this practice of clergy serving under his authority. If you’ve never tried fasting before, this may be a good way to begin, and regardless of your experience with fasting can be a beneficial addition to your personal discipleship whether for a season or indefinitely.
An important note about dietary fasts: While fasting can yield significant spiritual benefits, you should only do it if you are healthy enough to do so. In particular, total and water-only fasts should be limited, generally only to a day at a time. It’s worth noting that even in scripture, there is only a record of extended total or water-only fasts by those such as Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. If in doubt, and especially if you are considering a longer total or water-only fast, seek the advice and supervision of a medical professional.
Non-dietary fasts are those in which we give up something other than food, typically a particular activity or behavior. This may be for health reasons, or it may be due to our own self-examination and recognition that our relationship with God will be deepened more by abstaining from something other than food.
Effective non-dietary fasts will vary from person to person, but as a general rule whatever you give up should be something you will feel the absence of on a regular basis. Some ideas include:
- Video games
- Social media
- Eating out
- Spending money on particular things such as clothing, or more broadly spending money except on essentials such as food and gas
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and you may well find that something else is more beneficial to deepening your relationship with God.
Though not truly a fast as found in scripture or church tradition, so-called “positive” fasts may still be beneficial for some. In positive fasts, one adopts additional spiritual disciplines and practices rather than giving something up. This may include extended daily time in prayer and the study of scripture, serving in the church or the community, or increased financial generosity.
Things to Remember when Fasting
- Fasting should be sacrificial. Fasting is designed to involve an element of sacrifice, and should be felt on a regular (ideally daily) basis. If you don’t play video games, for instance, fasting from them isn’t going to be much of a sacrifice.
- Fasting is not designed to be a diet or a self-help program. While there may well be some health and other such benefits to fasting, that is not its primary goal. Likewise, fasting is not necessarily the time to give up bad habits that we should rid ourselves of anyway. Rather, the goal of fasting is a deeper relationship with God by identifying and removing the things in our life other than God that control us – even things that aren’t inherently bad but are nevertheless distracting.
- Remember Jesus’ words about fasting. In Matthew 6, Jesus offers some instructions about how to fast: “And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
When we fast, our goal is not to gain the approval of others or to engage in an outward sign of piety. Rather, our focus is on God, and we trust that when we fast God knows it without us proclaiming it. So, for instance, if you’re going to fast from social media, don’t make post about what you’re doing: just sign out, delete the apps, and let that be that.
- Consider what you’ll do instead of what you’re giving up. Fasting is most effective when we replace what we’re giving up with something that directs our focus back toward God. When fasting, consider using the time that you would have spent on what you gave up in prayer, the study of scripture, acts of service, or something else that focuses your attention toward God.
- Be flexible. Remember that we are saved by grace and faith, not our actions. Fasting isn’t a way to “earn” our way to salvation, but rather is a way of making our prayer life and our awareness of God’s voice more effective. In that spirit, don’t get so caught up with the act of fasting that you forget why you’re doing it in the first place.
- Make a plan and stick to it. As with any goal, fasting is most effective when you’ve already thought through how you’ll respond to the inevitable temptation to break the fast. Feeling the urge to get back on Facebook just to see what notifications you’ve missed? Call up a friend and see if they want to hang out. Up late studying for an exam and wanting to go by Starbucks just this once? Swing by Wesley and make yourself a cup of coffee in the Keurig.
- Invite others to hold you accountable. While in fasting our goal is not to publicize what we’re doing publicly, there’s a difference between “showy piety” and accountability. Share your fast with some others you trust and invite them to hold you accountable to it (protip: if you’re in an Ember or Phoenix Group these are great avenues for this).
Want to read more about fasting? Here are some additional resources: